The Navy and Naval Policy, 1899-1916
Copyright 1993, 1996 by Mark Grimsley
All rights reserved. This means you.
A Navy second to none: Among the battleships authorized
by the Naval Act of 1916 was the USS Pennsylvania. Heavily damaged
during the attack on Pearl Harbor, it survived to unleash its twelve14-inch
rifles on a number of enemy-held islands. The aerial photo above was snapped
as it bombarded Guam in 1944.
A. The post-1898 period marked the triumph of the Mahanian conception
of seapower and command of the sea as the basic strategic foundation of
American naval policy. The Navy accepted it; so did the Executive, Congress,
and an attentive public and press.
1. Yet the universal acceptance of a basic strategy for maritime
defense did not solve all problems or assure the Navy that it would have
its way with civilian leadership; i.e., Congress.
2. Navy also distressed by internal problems--esp. serious clashes
between officers on organization of Navy Department and ship design.
B. Even so, the general trend was toward a bigger and better Navy,
endorsed by three successive administrations--T. Roosevelt, W. H. Taft,
1. Trend culminated with Naval Act of 1916 and acceptance of the
principle of a "navy second to none"--a Navy able to operate
in the Atlantic and Pacific.
II. Policy and Strategy
A. Organizational Context
1. SecNav John D. Long convinced of value of ad hoc advisory boards;
e.g., Strategy Board of 1898. Sponsored further development of concept.
2. 1900--The General Board headed by most prestigious admiral,
George Dewey, who headed the Board until 1914.
a. General Board a mix of line and bureau representatives. Its job:
to advise SecNav on policy. Produced many G/S type studies of major and
minor sort--e.g., location of major naval base in Philippines; type of
boiler for torpedo boats.
b. Biggest responsibility: war plans (color plans) and building programs.
3. 1903--Joint Army-Navy Board created (usu. called Joint Board)--lasted
till JCS arrangement in WWII.
a. mission: advise SecWar, SecNav on interservice issues. Part-time
affair--no permanent secretariat. Handled a variety of matters (most exotic
was perhaps decision to adopt "Star Spangled Banner" as national
anthem.) Did some joint war planning. Vehicle for this was Joint Planning
Board, composed of 3 offs from war plans divisions of each service.
(1) Suspended by Wilson during WWI. As he explained to Congress--"it
was feared that the army and navy officers might be encouraged to turn
their minds actively toward preparations for war."
4. Political support--Navy League (1903) of retired officers,
industrialists, civic leaders, importers/exporters, social elite. Copied
British, German groups. Local propaganda, lobbying of Congress.
a. Congress--Naval Affairs Committee and solid support, mostly from
Republicans. Minority: anti-imperialists, "Jeffersonian" Dems
of rural stripe.
b. Press--pro-Navy, boomed "flag-showing; e.g., world cruise
of the "Great White Fleet," 1907-1909.
1. Work of General Board/Naval War College.
2. Policy--continental defense, defense of insular possessions, Monroe
Doctrine, "Open Door" for China.
a. Volatile world environment--multi-polar, very aggressive foreign
policies, several potential enemies.
b. Hence Navy sought to be prepared against a variety of threats.
3. Strategic survey:
a. Atlantic--major threat was Royal Navy; however, danger of hostilities.
(1) Worries--direct attack; e.g., Cape Cod, Long Island Sound; or
action in the Caribbean.
(2) War Plan RED--contemplated major fleet action, prevention of
British establishment of Caribbean bases.
(3) German adventurism also of concern--and in fact Germans did have
an OPERATIONSPLAN II which contemplated establishment of bases in Caribbean.
(U.S. War Plan BLACK, in fact, anticipated German plan rather well.)
(a) But these fears were a little unrealistic as long as Royal Navy
and Imperial German Navy faced each other in Europe.
b. Pacific--major threat early on was Germany again--German-American
rivalry over Samoa, German squadron in Manila after SpAm War. For a time
Russia considered a possible foe, chiefly because of its designs in China.
(1) But after Russo-Japanese War the Japanese emerged as the most
likely enemy. Complicating matters was an Anglo-Japanese alliance, in effect
since 1902, that potentially could have involved U.S. in war with Britain
too (treaty called for co-belligerency if Japan faced by two powers, not
(2) Threat to Philippines, China trade.
(3) Racist element involved too--"Yellow Peril" hysteria,
plus anti-Japanese discrimination on West Coast contributed to strained
relations; plus Japanese expansionism in East Asia or Japanese leadership
in pan-Asian movement against European/American colonial powers.
(4) War scare, 1907.
(5) War Plan ORANGE--initially fleet to be based at Subic Bay in
Philippines. Army considered it too difficult to defend after Japanese
capture of Port Arthur in Manchuria. Main naval base shifted east--Pearl
Harbor looks more likely. Big fleet action envisioned. Kernel of war plan
eventually conducted against Japan in 1941-1945.
a. Base structure and need for isthmian canal, which had to be protected.
(1) Until it was built, difficult to protect both coasts effectively.
Danger of ruinous fleet division.
(2) But difficult to concentrate--e.g., Oregon cruise of 1898--68
days around Cape Horn from San Francisco to Key West. 13,000 miles farther
than voyage to Japan.
b. 1903--US assists Panama to achieve independence--deploys warship,
Marine battalion to block Colombian ability to squelch uprising.
(1) Canal begun; completed in 1914; opened during Wilson presidency.
(2) Strategically invaluable but also vulnerable; required considerable
c. Bases--many overseas bases contemplated (in both Atlantic and
Pacific). Relatively few actually constructed. Congress not interested
in funding. Battleships yes; bases no.
C. Peacetime Operations
1. Navy played key role in strategic aspects of Caribbean diplomacy--sought
certain islands and harbors as bases; sought at least to deny other areas
to potential enemies.
a. Bureau of Equipment--"coal bureau"--tireless lobbying
for bases, would have dotted the map with coaling stations.
b. Promoters sometimes exploited concerns for foreign powers--tried
to sell Navy likely base sites with veiled threats to offer them to rival
powers if US not interested.
2. Other phase of Caribbean diplomacy--"dollar diplomacy."
a. Loans to Latin countries at high rates of interest (high risk).
When defaults or other problems occurred, diplomats used to enforce repayment
terms. Naval/marine pressure used, too.
b. Roosevelt Corollary--1902-3. After a debt crisis occurred in Venezuela,
TR warned off foreign powers from trying to to gain permanent influence
through debt collection procedures of this sort. Debarred from seeking
restitution on their own, Europeans creditor nations looked to US to enforce
debt repayment. Result: "dollar diplomacy"--US figured if it
had to do the enforcing, it might as well do the lending.
c. Flavor of US naval attitude toward this sort of duty revealed
by Marblehead confernce in 1906--representatives of three quarreling
Latin American states taken aboard the gunboat Marblehead to agree
to general terms laid down by State Dept.
(1) Captain laid vessel in trough of long Pacific rollers until delegates
became so miserably seasick they would have signed anything.
3. Naval aspects of the Big Stick
a. Use of Navy as a show of force: two episodes; naval concentration
in Venezuelan crisis; Great White Fleet.
(1) 3 purposes
(a) overawe potential enemy (Germany; Japan)
(b) improve Navy's effectiveness
(c) convince public it was getting its money's worth.
b. Great White Fleet world cruise was TR's idea--full extent of cruise
kept under wraps till Navy was in Pacific. When Congressmen raised eyebrows
at cost, TR replied that there was money enough to get fleet to Pacific;
it was up to Congress to bring it back again.
c. Navy constantly used for this sort of duty. Navy did not object
as long as BBs not involved.
D. Building the Fleet
1. Consistent growth in size, expense
2. 1897 (auth. or built) 1910
9 BBs, 2 2nd class BB 36 BBs
2 CAs, 1 ram 12 CAs
6 monitors 10 monitors
3. Under T. Roosevelt, 1901-1905: Congress authorized 10 BBs, 4 CAs.
Budget--$85 million to $118 million, a new peacetime high.
4. 1905-1909: US Navy third in world--second only to Britain and
a. TR wants 1 for 1 replacement program, triggered by 1906 appearance
of Dreadnought-class all-big gun BB.
b. Usu. 2 BBs per year; sometimes just 1, but consensus for naval
c. Similar situation obtained in Taft and Wilson admins.
E. Key Acts
1. General Board (1913)--recommended 48 BBs, 192 DDs, 96 subs for
counterinvasion force by 1920. Supported by Wilson but not Congress.
2. Naval Act of 1914--2 BB replacements per year; subs and torpedo
3. Advent of WWI converted Wilson to larger Navy, eased Congressional
4. Naval Act of 1916--contemplated navy "second to none."
Passed Congress by wide margins: Senate, 71-8; House 283-51.
a. Three-year program in numbers larger than General Board's request.
Auth: 10 BBs, 16 CAs, 50 DDs, 72 subs; 14 auxiliaries.
III. Problems of the New Navy
A. Navy Dept. Organization
1. Line v. bureaus--issue: warship construction and performance.
a. BB design--low freeboard results in waves against turrets in heavy
seas; armor not thick enough and not far enough below waterline; armament
a hidgepodge of calibers and turret guns v. broadside batteries; direct
shaft from magazines to turrets--two BB explosions in TR's time.
(1) 1908--line officers led by LTC William Sims got TR to have presidential
commission investigate; also Congressional hearing which found criticisms
b. Shooting--Sims inspector of target practice for TR. Continuous
aim fire developed by RN--manipulating gun. Bureau said it couldn't be
done by less than 5 men. Sims thought roll of ship made it possible to
use gravity to move gun. Hits--10% up to 75% or more. Conclusion: bureaus
c. The cure: line officers run day-to-day Navy, determine policies.
A Navy General Staff--TR favored, 1908; Congress rejected.
(1) Reasons for rejection: bureau ties, fear of loss of patronage
in Navy yards (US had almost twice as many government yards as Britain.
(2) Compromise: position of naval aide created to advise SecNav;
filled by "young Turks;" e.g., Sims, Bradley Fiske, William F.
Fullam; William V. Pratt--future admirals and reformers. Influenced SecNav,
but power shared with General Board, bureaus, fleet commanders.
(3) Chief of Naval Operations (1915)--approved by Congress, pushed
by SecNav Josephus Daniels. Merged naval aides and BuNav, but power still
shared. But CNO at least an admiral.
B. The Navy at Sea
1. Ships undermanned and enlisted quality not up to demands of complex
vessels; e.g., shortages of qualified petty officers, skilled technicians.
(Herman Wouk quote re Navy designed for idiots and run by geniuses.) Rapid
a. 1898: 13,750; 1911: 40,000 (but still 4-5,000 understrength.
2. Recruiting: more landsmen, more natives (1911--80% native born;
more technical schools.
3. Shipboard conditions--reformers led by Fullam; advocate removal
of Marine ship guards, more military training for sailors to inculcate
discipline, upgrade PO's status.
a. Success--TR 1908 order removing ship's guards.
b. HQ Marine Corps--liked the mission; lobbied Congress and ships
guards replaced 1909.
4. Officer Corps--who commands?
a. Naval Personnel Act, 1899
(1) line and engineers merged to all line, but specialties developed
by function (gunnery, navigation, engineering).
(2) Also more rapid promotion by selection of a few for early retirement--"plucking"
captains and commanders; promotion exams up to captain.
b. Extension--landing party command until Veracruz, 1914; keep USMC
off secondary batteries. New developments: subs, aviation, destroyers and
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There are some great images of pre-Dreadnought and Dreadnought era
battleships at Haze Gray and Under Way.
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